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Innovation & Startups

CMU launches cross-disciplinary institute to spur innovation



With the launch of Carnegie Mellon’s Integrated Innovation Institute, it becomes the first university to cross train students in engineering, design and business. The market-focused institute is meant to speed the pace of innovation via collaboration, something that has long been a hallmark of CMU. Students take courses across disciplines to understand how those other disciplines think, so they will be ready to be successful innovators in the marketplace.
 
"Global business challenges demand a new breed of executive talent,” says institute co-director Peter Boatwright, the Carnegie Bosch Professor of Marketing at the Tepper School of Business. “Our integrated innovation tenets force students outside their previous training and comfort zones, creating hybrid thinkers and doers. We've been moving toward this pivotal point for years, training students in a deeply integrated and pragmatic method that directly addresses the barriers inhibiting speed in industry."
 
The institute was inspired by the cross-disciplinary curriculum of CMU’s Master of Integrated Innovation program, which was founded in 2003 as the Master of Product Development program, says co-director Eric Anderson, an associate professor in the School of Design and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts.
 
Anderson says the program’s success has been the result of tackling the “fuzzy front end of development” — figuring out the kinds of things that should be designed and what features customers want to see in products.
 
In addition to the Pittsburgh-based Master of Integrated Innovation for Products in Services, the core of the institute includes the Master of Science in Software Management, based in Silicon Valley and founded in 2004; and a professional master’s degree planned for fall 2015 as part of Carnegie Mellon’s new Integrated Media Program at Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
 
“I think the challenges most folks have is that they don’t always start off with integration of disciplines in mind,” Anderson says of typical snags in the innovation process that the institute aims to alleviate.
 
“Companies are still very linear in how they think of product design. In companies that are more successful, they collaborate in points of the process. But we distinguish ourselves because we are integrated in how we teach — so people become hybrid thinkers and doers. It’s hard to get disciplines together to think about a problem at a high enough level that people can work through the difficulties.”
 
Anderson says being empathetic to other disciplines helps identify opportunities and shape potential solutions to challenges.
 
“Our students, from day one, they are thinking in an integrated environment,” he says. “And they are being taught the fundamentals of other disciplines.”
 
So what does this kind of cross-discipline collaboration look like in action?
 
“From the outside, it may seem like organized chaos,” Anderson says, with a laugh. “It is very dynamic. You have people sketching and making diagrams and papers and reports, all of which inform the process from different disciplines… They all weave it together at different stages in the process to make arguments about why what they are proposing is the best solution for the problem that has been stated.”
 
The university has dedicated a state of the art building to the institute that features open and flexible space that can be reconfigured at any time to accommodate talks or teams.
 
Not only are students constantly integrating other disciplines into their work, they are often immersed in the cultures and environments for which they are designing solutions. A CMU collaboration with the long haul truck company Navistar several years ago exemplifies the success of this level of immersion.
 
Anderson says during the project, students practically lived at truck stops. This environmental research yielded key insight students would not have otherwise learned.
 
“Students found in their research that when truckers are pulled over by state troopers — truckers must open their door to share their license and registration. And when the truck is dirty, truckers are more likely to get a ticket.”
 
For this reason, a cleaning zone was one of the five activity zones implemented in the redesign of the internal cab of the truck. The other zones included sleeping, working, meal preparation and pets. The five teams that designed the zones had their work patented and their features were translated to one large system. The truck won the 2008 Truck of the Year award.
 
“It’s because of this integrated approach that allows them to have these real world experiences and allows them to be immediately valuable in the marketplace,” says Anderson.
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